Monday, November 8, 2010

Toldot Sermon

This week's Torah portion is Toldot.  This is what happens.  Isaac and Rebekah have twins, and name them Jacob and Esau who constantly fight with each other, even in the womb.  First Esau sells his birthright to Jacob.  Finally Jacob steals Esau’s blessing and lives up to his name, "heel."

Here is that story, with my embellishments of course.  Isaac was old (100 years old) and nearly blind.  He tells Esau to prepare for him a meal.  He says, “Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game.  Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.” (Genesis 27)

Rebekah was listening to the conversation and so she told Jacob about it.  She instructed Jacob to take from the flock and she would then prepare his father’s favorite dish.  Jacob expresses some reservation, saying, "Dad is going to know.  I am smooth skinned and he is hairy."  Rebekah responds, "Don’t worry. I will take care of Dad; your curse will be on me."

She prepares the meal and then dresses Jacob up like Esau.  I have this image of Rebekah pushing Jacob into the room to stand before Isaac.  Jacob says, "Avi—Father."  Isaac responds, "Which of my sons are you?"  Jacob replies, "I am Esau your firstborn…"  Isaac then says, "Come closer that I may feel you…  The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau…  So he blessed him."   Isaac again asks, "Are you really my son Esau?"  Jacob responds, "Ani—I am."  Isaac then says, "Ok, let me eat some of the food you prepared."  Then he blesses him.

Jacob leaves stage right.  Esau immediately enters stage left.  He prepares the game he killed and brings it to his father.  Isaac asks, "Who are you?"   Esau responds, "I am Esau your first born."  Isaac was then seized with violent trembling and asks, "Who was it then who came before and stole the blessing?  I blessed him so he must remain blessed!"

Esau bursts into wild and bitter sobbing, screaming, "Bless me too father!"  Isaac then reveals that it must have been Jacob and that in his blessing he made Jacob master over Esau.  Esau continues to beg for a blessing.  The hunter is reduced to tears.  Isaac finally  relents and offers him a blessing.  Esau then plots to kill his brother Jacob.  I imagine Esau picking himself up from the ground.  We now see vengeance appear in his eyes.  So Rebekah sends Jacob away to escape the fury of Esau.

That is the story with a bit of my spin.  Now here is my interpretation.  There is evidence that Isaac knows what is going on and chooses not to see.  How would he not know the difference between his sons?  How would he not know the cooking of his wife of 60 years?  How would he not know the difference between wild, hunted game and animals from the flock?  Why does he not call his wife in to tell him which son it is?

It is because Isaac knows the truth.  He knows the truth but can’t say it out loud.  This is the real story of Isaac's life.  He knew the truth as well when his father nearly sacrificed him.  He saw these things but chose not to see them.  In the rabbis estimation, Isaac is emotionally blind.

This story and Isaac's life teach us an important truth.  History is sometimes made by averting our eyes.  The contrast between his father Abraham is most stark.  Abraham moves the story by seeing.  Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the ram.  It was there all along but he could not see it because of his zeal.  This is similar to Hagar and her story.  The well was there all along.  But she could not see it because of her tears.  Sometimes passion and grief obscure our seeing.  Many people think that miracles are about God working magic.  But according to Genesis they are about lifting up the eyes.  They are about opening the eyes and seeing what is already there.

The rabbis of Talmud see miracles as woven into the fabric of creation.  In other words miracles are not about a disruption of the natural course of events.  The bush burned and the sea split because those moments were set when the world was created.  They are therefore part of the world’s natural order and creation.  They are built into creation from the beginning.

So miracles are more about our seeing things than God’s magic.  Miracles are about noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Miracles are not about God’s magic but about our seeing.  Our seeing is most often obscured by passion and grief.  Hagar was so overwrought that she could not see the saving well.  The pain of watching her son die of thirst blinded her.  Abraham likewise was so blinded by zeal that he could not see that he was supposed to sacrifice the ram instead of his son.

So how do we understand Isaac’s not seeing?  If he is blinded by choice—because it is too painful to verbalize what one son is doing to another or how his wife is conspiring against him or how he is favoring one son over another—then what might be the miracle that he is unable to see?  That miracle I am sorry to say is in the sequel.  It is in next week’s portion.  That miracle is the dream of a ladder going to heaven.  This miracles occurs because Jacob is now running from Esau.  Such is the history that is created by Isaac choosing not to see.

I am left with the impression that we can’t see everything.  That some things are too painful to see clearly.  The truth must sometimes be concealed.  And that we must, as a matter of faith, veil our eyes.

In truth it is not Abraham who teaches us how to build faith.  God can ask me as many times as He wants but I am not going to sacrifice my son—or my daughter for that matter—on some mountain top.  It is Isaac who tells me how to lead a life of faith.  You can look at the world and all its pain.  You can look at our own lives and all their difficulties, and say, there is no God; there are no miracles.  Or you can see the lone ram caught in the thicket, or the well buried under the desert scrub.  You can look at nature in all its wonderful fall colors, and say, "I believe!"

Faith is a matter of averting our eyes from our daily pains.  And seeing instead the sometimes less frequent joys and blessings.  It is about seeing—and not seeing.

We say in the words of our tradition,  Baruch Ata…she-asah li nes ba-makom hazeh.  Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who performed a miracle for me in this place.

Say it often enough and you will always see wells of water, and not nearly as much pain and grief.

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